A Conversation with Vicki Davis, Founder of Westwood Schools Wikispace

Earlier today, I taked with Vicki Davis (blog), a teacher in the Westwood Schools, Camilla, GA. Vicki is a technology teacher, and the visionary behind the Westwood Schools wikispace, one of the most advanced, well-thought out, and transformative applications of a wiki to education that I’ve seen yet. Vicki is truly at the forefront, and the conversation speaks for itself.

  • How did you find out about/get into using the wiki?
    I came back from the GAETC conference and had attended three amazing sessions with David Warlick. After the session, reading his book, and some recommended blogs, I made a list of all of the technologies that he and other visionaries feel are most conducive to collaborative learning.I decided to #1 Begin blogging myself and to actively participate in the blogosphere as an educator to chronicle my experiences and LEARN, and #2 Begin using Wikis with my students.
  • How did the Westwood Wiki start?
    This was the first technology that I chose to deploy in my classroom because we have had several training sessions on collaborative learning and authentic assessment – I just felt wikis fit better with what I’d learned and with my Socratic teaching method. I used it to introduce the Concept of Web 2.0 to my computer science class. In my blog entry on December 9th I go into greater detail, but here is the synopsis of how I began..I have two computer science classes with parallel curriculum. I split them into teams of 2-3 students in each class and gave each group one word. Their assignment was to explore and create wikis on each topic in a collaborative effort with the team in the other class to help them understand the emerging concept called Web 2.0.. The six words were: blogosphere, wiki pages, social bookmarking, podcasting, RSS Feeds, folksonomy. At the conclusion they were to demonstrate the topic to the class and lead a class discussion about it.I gave them several guidelines:
  1. I asked them to post meaningful, relevant information on their topic.
  2. I asked them to summarize information they found on the Net and to link to it.
  3. I asked them to continue to read their topic and ask themselves — “What do I not understand about this topic?” and then to proceed to answer that question and post their findings.
  4. I asked them to use some of the websites that they read about.
  5. They were not allowed to delete information of another unless it was redundant or they paraphrased/edited it to make it better.
  6. On the third day, I gave each team 5 minutes to present their topic — they had to summarize and demonstrate the use of their term in action.
  7. At the conclusion of the presentation, I asked all students to post a comment on the page providing feedback or asking questions. (This was just to introduce them to the feature and to keep them focused on the task at hand.)

I really planned to just use the wiki once to introduce Web 2.0 and then move on, however, the students loved it so much and I found that it fit in so well with the Socratic teaching method that I love, that we’ve continued to supplement everything we do with the wiki.

  • Tell me about the structure of the wiki, and what kinds of activities are on it?

    The Wiki has a home page which is now a mashup with posts from my class blog, the school news blog, and the school calendar. It has become a one stop place for my students to see what is going on in computer science and at school. I also keep a listing of all past projects on the home page (scroll down) as well as a listing of current projects. I either give the assignments orally or via paper, however, I usually post the assignment on the wiki as well.Here is how this works for us:

    Ninth Grade- Computer Applications – They create study sheets and notes for each applications lesson. (PowerPoint, Access, Excel, Planning Skills, and a project on mashups have been worked on since Christmas.) By the day before the test, it is their responsibility to create a wiki on their assigned lesson along with their partner.Although it is a team responsibility, I make it clear that I give individual grades. If they do not contribute to their team wiki, they receive a zero. This keeps everyone motivated and working!

    Computer Science (10th, 11th) – We’ve used the wiki to collaborate on notes, discuss the ethics of computer crimes, review for the SAT (Math – 7th period, Math -6th period)and our original Web 2.0 project. I also have used the wiki extensively in their semester assessments.

  • How many classes/students using it?

    I have two computer science classes and one ninth grade computer fundamentals class using it – that represents approximately 50 students. I am in the process of introducing the eighth grade keyboarding class to wikis, but have them spending more time blogging to hone their keyboarding skills. I plan to introduce wikis to my senior accounting and graphic design classes next year.

  • Are wiki activities/assignments part of formal assessment/grading?

    Absolutely. Authentic assessment is a mainstay here at Westwood and we do not have formal “Final exams.” Our focus this year is to authentically assess and cumulatively test. We care about knowledge retention. Everything we do on wikispaces is for a grade. Remember, I tell them that these are group projects but that I grade individually. If I see pretty fair contribution of each they both benefit with a good grade. However, if I see that one person did all the work, I reserve the right to grade appropriately. This is how the history has been so helpful, as I can see which person made which edits.

  • I have had several MAJOR assessments for Computer Science:

    • #1 November 2005 – I wanted to create an authentic assessment as to their understanding of the use of wikipages to collaborate. For their quiz, I asked them to create a page with a partner of their choosing, that would help them study for an exam or complete a project in the next week. (See the links to these on http://westwood.wikispaces.com/Westwood+wikilinks+page.)I must say that I was impressed with the biology page. I also was quite pleased with their review material of the Scarlet Letter, King Lear, and their English Exam Review.
    • #2 Semester 1 Assessment – I had two scenarios to which students were allowed to use their books. In each of these, they had to apply what they had learned about computing to either recommend a computer for a grandfather or a college student based upon certain criteria. You can review these projects at: EXAM – Scenario 1, EXAM – Scenario 2. It was open book and they said it was harder than any exam they had taken. I thought that it took more comprehension of the subject than other options.
    • #3 Semester 2 Assessment – I am using the Wikis now as part of the computer science assessment for second semester. Section 1 of their portfolio requires that they use and evaluate a Web 2.0 website and create a wiki with their findings. This is an individual project, however, they are allowed to look at each other’s work. Each student must have a different website, so this just serves to improve each of their work and bring it up to a higher level.I believe wikis fit very well into authentic assessment and our curriculum director has been very pleased with the results in my classroom..
  • How have students reacted to using it?
    I’d like to go back to one of my early posts on December 9th that represents how my students felt about the wikis after first introduction:But my amazement came afterwards as I walked through the halls. Two girls attracted my attention with their squealing — I asked what was up with them — They were squealing about the English material going on the wikipage! It was going to help them on their project! They were so excited. They practically drove me crazy the rest of the day getting passes to come in and update the information for their exams and projects. Other teachers started coming to me and asking what was going on. They couldn’t believe the amount of material synthesized and summarized in one class period!

    My last period class heard from the others about the “do it yourself” project and then came the most astounding idea of all — the 10th grade study hall! They created a place to post projects and assignments and invited each other to their wikispace. Then, they created links to the websites that their fellow students had created to help them study/ review/ complete the project. They are used to copying notes for one another — but now they can collaborate on notes! The results are astonishing!

    This is what is most amazing — the buzz in the hall with students talking excitedly about King Lear, the Scarlett Letter, the poetry project, the History project, and what other information they need to post to help!

Like anything, some students “moan and groan” about wikis. They are also the same ones who moan about anything requiring effort. What I have seen, however, is that grades on tests have improved, participation in class discussion has improved, and knowledge of the subjects have improved. With wikis at the core of my classroom, it has become our “hub of knowledge transference” as students share and collaborate. I have been more than pleased.

As a recent blog “question of the week”, I had my students compare and contrast wikis and blogs. Here are a few excerpts about what they think:

  • “Wikis are I think a lot more efficient than blogs.” 9th grader
  • “There is not a large difference between blogs and wikis. Blogs are more like an online journal and wikis are more for the classroom. Although wikis are more for the classroom we use both wikis and blogs a lot.” 9th grader
  • “Blogs are more opinionated than wikis, because wikis are a collaboration of facts by every individual student….Blogging is more popular and more people are aware of it. Wikispaces are a fairly new concept which leads to not many people knowing about them. A wikispace is more of a discussion than blogging, because blogging is one person’s opinion with other’s comments on it. Wikispaces are also aimed more toward the “classroom” setting rather than personal home setting.” 9th grader

I also recorded our classroom discussion held on 1/18/06 about what students think of wikis. They are pretty honest.

  • How would you describe the wiki experience from a teacher’s standpoint?

    Like anything new, I struggled at first. But fear is a great motivator and I was afraid that I wasn’t covering everything I needed to in Computer Science. Their research and mine showed me that indeed these technologies are driving our society in ways that we do not as yet understand.

    I enjoy wikis and feel that for classroom teaching, that this new medium cannot be beat! I’d like to start seeing more wiki textbooks where I can add exercises and information as can other teachers. It could be a very helpful tool for teachers around the world and a great way to share best practices. As the student above state, it becomes more than the opinion of one person but a shared opinion. That is very valuable to educators.

    I grade these wikis by subscribing to the wiki over my bloglines account. It shows me simply who is working on what. One time, I was at home with a sick child and had my students working on wikis. I was commenting and posting as they worked and it was about like I was there!

  • What skills do you see the wiki helping students develop or acquire? It helps them understand teamwork but also individual responsibility to the team. I also believe that as I prepare them for college that they can use wikis to help those infamous team projects work more smoothly. I believe wikis are the perfect way for teams to collaborate who are with each other all the time and will result in increased productivity.

    As a former businesswoman I have been trained to look at the “bottom line.” The bottom line is that in this world, these students are going to have to work with people around the world on projects. They are going to have to overcome language and distance barriers. In order to do that, they must understand collaboration and wikis are part of the solution to this. It is vital to their future in the global workplace as the managers and leaders I believe they are called to be. Students who understand how to use wikis will be better college students and more successful businesspeople, educators, doctors, etc. I want to help them succeed so I feel that such collaborative tools must be part of my classroom.

Vicki D. Hello Stewart. I have your questions and I’ve prepared some answers for them.
Stewart M. Hi Vicki
Stewart M. Sounds great!
Stewart M. What inspired the mashup on the front page of the wiki?
Vicki D. To make things relevant to the students, I like to show it in action. We’ve been talking about mashups and some got it and some didn’t. We’ve also talked about RSS with the same result. When I did this, they all 100% got it becuase I did it in a way that is meaningful to them. They see the various sources and see how it is aggregated. There is nothing like a live example that is relevant to teach.
Vicki D. I am encouraging them to mashup on their semester project using the RSS feed option added to Wikispaces recently. They can also look at my code and see how I did it to do it themselves.
Stewart M. Your account of the two girls squealing with delight over the fact that material on the wiki was going to directly help them with their project is amazing – that must have been quite a day with so many people wanting to know what was going on
Vicki D. It was totally exhausting. All of the teachers, the curriculum director, and students who aren’t in my class were coming in to see what it was. Amazingly my students started teaching those who weren’t in my classes and made wikis of their own.
Vicki D. When I started wikis it was totally exhausting but exhausting not from frustration but because of overwhelming success!
Vicki D. Teachers were asking what this wiki thing was and some of them were nervous that the kids were somehow “cheating.” It took a little effort to assuage fears and I also talked to kids about the difference between aggregating information and sharing answers.
Vicki D. Only one incident of answer sharing happened, it was handled, and no other problems have happened since. Its worked very well!
Stewart M. I’m reading your answers with more and more amazement – the way you’ve structured assignments like the word projects with groups in your two computer science classes is head and shoulders above what most people are doing, and is really exposing the true potential of the web.
Vicki D. This is where things are going. The students prefer wikis over blogs for CLASSROOM work. They value blogs over wikis for sharing opinions. The fact is, they get it. They teach me.
Vicki D. It is really an easier and better way of teaching. When someone is involved in the teaching process they learn so much more than when they sit and listen to a lecture.
Stewart M. Yes – aggregating information vs. sharing answers is something I’m explaining quite often too – I think teachers need to be shown that aggregating information eliminates the useless repetition of basic facts that leaves them unengaged and the teachers with 20 identical papers to read.
Vicki D. It is so mind blowing for teachers and the first response to anything new is — “We never needed that before so why should we use it now.”
Vicki D. The only thing permanent in these kids lives is change. If we want them to be effective participators in this global community we must MODEL that behavior and change from CHANGE FIGHTERS to CHANGE MAKERS.
Stewart M. I think that reaction is the clear indication of something revolutionary – they understand just enough to see it as completely different, but then they don’t know what to make of it.
Vicki D. Absolutely revolutionary. It scared me to death. I had a humble little quiet project started with just the curriculum director involved and it literally erupted over the whole high school.
Stewart M. This generation already is less resistant to change, in my opinion, and tools like the wiki enable them to do it in a tangible way.
Vicki D. Change is tough. We fear it. I was at Georgia Tech when the Internet was first emerging and learned how to program in hypercard on a Mac. I told others “Oh, these professors are so out there, this will never happen.” I was wrong. I will not be wrong again.
Stewart M. Good for you!
Vicki D. This generation is a generation of intuitive learners. The generation teaching them is a generation of TEXTBOOK learners. It has created friction.
Vicki D. It has also created a missed opportunity for learning.
Stewart M. That’s exactly the impetus behind my work – building tools that shift away from the traditional textbook model and allow both intuitive and participative learning.
Vicki D. Intuitive learning combined with the power of Google and a wiki make for great socratic teaching without Socrates having to ask the questions – the students learn to ask their own questions.
Vicki D. I think that your tools are desperately needed. I like the powerpoints and test banks that come with my textbooks but I want MORE. I want integrated tools such as wikis to record my best practices and learn from others.
Vicki D. We’ve got to move from static material to dynamic material and I think most textbooks have made a poor attempt at this juncture.
Stewart M. At times, teachers are so afraid they don’t allow students to contribute their own knowledge as they learn. I’m issuing a very provocative call in my next two speaking engagements in May to have students directly contribute to the spectroscopy wiki, and to do it in a manner that simulates peer-reviewed publishing in journals.
Stewart M. There’s no reason not to have students learn in exactly the same environment and context that they will work professionally in.
Vicki D. I think the traditional view of teachers is being challenged by these tools. After all, they think, the teacher is supposed to be the expert — in this rapidly changing world, the students can access new, relevant information that was once only accessible to the experts.
Vicki D. They, therefore, should be included in the conversations that emerge.
Stewart M. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest reasons why students aren’t going into science careers.
Vicki D. I think we’ve missed the point and not shown students the excitement of discovery. When many teachers reveal things to students, they aren’t letting them go to discover but presenting it as “old hat.” Let them experiment and discover things and share their knowledge.
Vicki D. I think we TELL Them too much and deny them the EXPERIENCE.
Stewart M. Exactly.
Vicki D. By using wikis to share and aggregate their information we focus on the EXPERIENCE and not just dictating notes.
Vicki D. Why not do a wiki and aggregate the results of experiments. The teacher guides but does not tell the students the outcome. Let them aggregate and learn what the outcome is and draw the conclusion on their own. Then, they have learned.
Vicki D. Then, we have truly taught.
Stewart M. You’re right – and students WANT to do this. They’re already asking for it, and are willing and capable contributors.
Vicki D. This is not about proving how much we know and feeding our own egos because society has marginalized teaching as a profession. This is about using methods that really TEACH. I think that is where the fear comes in. If teachers no longer “teach” are they needed. It is a redefinition of good teaching.
Vicki D. Wikis ARE teaching! Wikis DO work! Students want to use social interaction as part of the learning process. They are more capable than we give them credit for.
Vicki D. As a side effect, it also engages parents as they see what their student are learning.
Stewart M. Teachers need to see themselves as guides, much like a good museum tour guide who takes you on the necessary path, stimulates you with a few good points, then lets you explore.
Vicki D. I had a grandmother come up to me and say “I don’t know what these things are my granddaughters are doing but I know they are excited and I know it has changed their lives.” I don’t know what to thank you for but whatever it is, keep doing it.
Vicki D. Yes, the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.
Stewart M. I think it can also make teaching more fun for teachers – imagine (well I think you’re living the reality!) how much more engaging it is to watch your students explore, get excited, and collaboratively build knowledge, than to grade 20 identical papers that were written by disengaged students.
Stewart M. Thanks so much for your time! I’m going to publish this short chat, and then, if it’s ok with you, 3-4 posts based on your answers to my questions, so that each post can focus on one topic, i.e. structure, assignments, student & teacher reaction, etc. Sound ok?
Vicki D. Sounds great! I think it has been a good conversation. Will you link to my blog in the posts so I can see when they come up?
Vicki D. I may also post some related information as you post yours. Boy, I like Campfire, how do you get the transcripts out of here?
Stewart M. I’ll send you a link to get the transcripts. and will link to your blog – http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/ Thanks Vicki!
Vicki D. I’m looking for a chat client to use for review Q& A exercises. And yes on the hyperlink. Thanks!
Vicki D. Catch you later!
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